The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 639

“Route” is a long poem in free verse consisting of fourteen sections, each structured differently. The title indicates that the poem describes a series of journeys: the narrative of the poet’s own life, the process of creating poetry, travel by car and other modern forms of transportation, and the voyage of humankind itself from the promise of human chromosomes to a fast-approaching apocalypse. Although the poem is written in first person and includes autobiographical material from George Oppen’s life, most of “Route” is a philosophical meditation that considers multiple points of view and the perspective of “we” rather than “I.”

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The first section presents a series of ancient, elemental materials (“the beads of the chromosomes,” “sources,” “crude bone,” “the mass of hills,” and “the sun”) that the speaker tries to link to a contemporary moment of individual perception (“Your elbow on a car-edge/ Incognito as summer”). The speaker says that the motive for writing this kind of poetry, which is made up of separate and distinct images, is to “achieve clarity.” The second section describes the importance of this clarity as a “force” that human beings experience as shared rather than “autonomous,” despite the fact that even the objective world is discontinuous and constantly changing like a “house in moonlight.” Next, the speaker develops the idea that the “thing” should not be reduced to “nothing” and that even the act of looking out a window at the world should be done without egotistical emotions. Then the speaker argues that words themselves are also things and are not “transparent” and have ethical implications for “those in extremity.” He also claims that people actually understand reality best in the state of boredom because then they are truly able to experience time.

There is a radical change in tone from the fourth to the fifth section as the poem moves from dreamlike images to a journalistic prose account. It reports a story about the suffering of French people forced to hide in individual holes during much of World War II in order to avoid being drafted into the German army and depicts information Oppen actually received while serving as a soldier and translator. The sixth section returns to lines of verse but continues with a meditation on the nature of war, although, as elsewhere, abstract concepts are presented through concrete relationships. The section concludes with things that are so simple (“there is a mountain, there is a lake”) that they are often misunderstood.

The eighth section explores how humanity’s view of modern life has been changed by the automobile. Although cars are “filled with speech,” it is the man whose car has crashed who “sees in the manner of poetry.” In the next section, the speaker compares the countryside that is driven through to a historical context, but he presents history in personal terms, including an allusion to the suicide of Oppen’s mother when he was a child. The tenth section continues this roadside perspective as a way to understand a poetic perspective that is composed of scenes rather than symbols and that is, by definition, finite rather than infinite.

The twelfth section views the larger human-made landscape of “sheetmetal,” “concrete,” and “gravel,” which is modern but is haunted by time and related to the fruit of the biblical Tree of Knowledge. In the thirteenth section, it becomes clear that the roadside landscape has already supplanted traditional public urban architecture, which was built so that people could entangle themselves “in the roots of the world” or to provide “shelter in the earth.” In the final section, the speaker predicts cataclysm for his culture like that experienced by the American Indians. In the conclusion, however, the speaker refuses to abandon his civilization, even if it is doomed, and affirms the reality of this world as it approaches its end.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 434

Oppen is considered to be one of the founding Objectivist poets, and he uses a succession of objective images to achieve the poetic effects of “Route.” The Objectivists were a diverse group launched by Ezra Pound, who believed that poetry should rely on images rather than metaphors, and influenced by William Carlos Williams, who asserted that there should be “no ideas but in things.” Because Oppen believed in the importance of giving realism to the thing described in his poetry and not merely treating the image as a vehicle for a more abstract or intellectual concept, he avoids relying on metaphors. A careful reading of “Route” shows few metaphoric constructions, even when the logic of the poem would seem to demand it. Sometimes the poem juxtaposes images or words without making the relationship between them completely clear, so that the reader may wonder whether or not a phrase such as “Reality, blind eye” is a metaphor. Sometimes the poem isolates the image from the rest of the text so that it can have greater impact as a moment of perception such as the “sea anemonefiltering the sea water through its body.” Although the poem opens with a simile comparing chromosomes to a rosary, much of the poem uses association by proximity rather than association by comparison, so that it is not just the images themselves that are poetic, but the sequence of images: “And beyond, culvert, blind curb, there are also names/ For these things, language in the appalling fields.”

Oppen defines poetic experience primarily in visual terms with his “moving picture,” but “Route” is also a poem that functions on an auditory level, although the speaker would seem to be diminishing the importance of song by saying, “Let it be small enough.” In many ways, “Route” is not a poetic poem: It includes a long section of narrative prose, and it is structured more as a meditation than a lyric. Nonetheless, although the poem is in free verse, its music appears in the use of repeated refrains such as “We will produce no sane man again” and “All this is reportage.” Oppen also builds rhythm by repeating grammatical constructions (“of invaders, of descendants/ Of invaders”), metrical patterns (“into gravel in the gravel of the shoulders”), and words (“Clarity, clarity, surely clarity is the most beautiful/ thing in the world,/ A limited, limiting clarity”). The most striking lines use simple diction in extraordinarily complex clauses (both grammatically and musically): “These things at the limits of reason, nothing at the limits of dream, the dream merely ends, by this we know it is the real.”

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 81

Duplessis, Rachel Blau, ed. The Selected Letters of George Oppen. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1990.

Hatlen, Burton, ed. George Oppen, Man and Poet. Orono, Maine: National Poetry Foundation, 1981.

Ironwood 5 (1975).

Ironwood 13 (Fall, 1985).

Nicholls, Peter. “Of Being Ethical: Reflections on George Oppen.” Journal of American Studies 31 (August, 1997): 153-170.

Oppen, Mary. Meaning a Life: An Autobiography. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Black Sparrow Press, 1978.

Paideuma 10 (Spring, 1981).

Thackrey, Susan. George Oppen: A Radical Practice. San Francisco: O Books and the Poetry Center & American Poetry Archives, 2001.

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